Fire & Blood: The Cautionary Tale of Daenerys Targaryen’s Pursuit of Power

*Spoiler Warning: This post discusses events depicted in Game of Thrones’ Season 8 Episode 5 “The Bells”. If you have not yet viewed the episode, refrain from reading further. ***

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This past Sunday, the millions of viewers who tuned in to watch Game of Thrones’ latest episode were treated to a shocking spectacle of destruction as Daenerys Targaryen gave new meaning to her House’s words — “Fire and Blood”. The Mother of Dragons laid waste to the city of King’s Landing, utterly obliterating Westeros’ seat of royal power and claiming the lives of thousands in a fiery maelstrom. While the truncated episode count of Season 8 could explain the sense of surprise and whiplash some fans feel at her resorting to large-scale destruction of innocents, a closer look at Daenerys’ journey illustrates that her turn is essential to the show’s overall message.

Power is the defining trait of Game of Thrones. Much of the series’ action centers on its accumulation, while the actions of major characters are primarily judged through their wielding or pursuit of it. Daenerys is no different and her eventual descent can be viewed as a warning for those who intrinsically desire to seek power or view it as something to seize.

Most of Daenerys’ story takes place on the continent of Essos, where she slowly builds both her reputation and her armies in preparation for reclaiming the Iron Throne. Here her accumulation of power is based in an actualization of the downtrodden that mirrors her own transformation from a diminutive girl who is bartered and abused into the Breaker of Chains. Daenerys sees the potential in social outcasts and the systemically disenfranchised (like the remnants of Khal Drogo’s Khalasar or the enslaved in Slaver’s Bay) because she is in some fashion of them. She shepherds them to a more empowered future as she builds a sense of self, understanding their worth as hers is discovered.

This dynamic helps Daenerys inspire devotion through appeals to idealism and opportunity. She represents a different path, one in which the oppressed find a place, and closes her credibility gap through the liberation of these peoples. Lord Varys and Ser Barristan Selmy even eventually flock to her cause because of her concern for commoners — this tendency to witness injustice and seek to correct it for the greater good. Even Daenerys’ foreboding episodes of unilateral action or ruthless judgment occur in the context of power distribution, where she routinely sides with the marginalized (ie when she’ll brutally crucify the Good Masters but provide newly freed slaves with shelter, or insist the Unsullied follow her command of their own volition after burning Kraznys mo Nakloz alive) over their oppressors. People follow her because of the transformative nature of her leadership and ability to achieve real gains that dramatically shape their daily existence.

When given the opportunity to steward this dynamic into a governable form in Meereen, she stumbles at first. Having to contend with the insurgent Sons of the Harpy and a rouge dragon, she is confronted with the costs of radical change. Given the chance to adapt, she eventually invests in making her victories more sustainable through the reopening of traditional fighting pits and the self-constricting confinement of Rhaegal and Viserion. Forging a stable Meereen under her new leadership is difficult, but she champions a noble mission that credibly links her to the people she rules.

However, instead of cultivating the newly christened Bay of Dragons she decides to press forward towards Westeros, a place she has little attachment to beyond a name. Daenerys was born after her father, Aerys, and brother, Rhaegar, were killed towards the ends of Robert’s Rebellion. Her mother Rhaella died in childbirth. The only other Targaryen she’s known has been her abusive brother Viserys, and they’ve been running across the Free Cities in Essos her entire life. She has no personal experience of Targaryen rule or life in Westeros, yet chooses to abandon her newly liberated people to an uncertain fate in order to conquer a land she’s never truly known. To rule a people she has no credible relationship with, because she has a claim on a throne she’s never seen.

That choice costs her everything.

It’s telling that Daenerys’ Westerosi campaign seems to unravel almost from the moment she secures Dragonstone. The alliances she arrives with are summarily defeated, she finds the North in a state of open rebellion, and the Army of the Dead now supersedes her push for the Iron Throne — an obstacle the ultimately claims her one of her dragons and a large percentage of her host. The relationships and bonds she forged in Essos dissolve and are taken away the closer she gets to the Iron Throne as armies, friends, and advisers either die or betray her. She begins to collapse under the burden of expectation of who she ought to be in Westeros and the cognitive dissonance of the continent’s rejection of her, and is left broken and alone, without a sense of self, as anyone she has an actual history with is taken away.

One of her stated reasons for invading Westeros at all is a desire to fundamentally change how its system of governance is experienced. She desires to break an abusive cycle of power that oppresses smallfolk and leaves them at the violent whims of Lords and Ladies. This administration of justice is something she is presently doing in Meereen and the Bay of Dragons, on a continent she has lived in her whole life with a people credibly engaged with her rule. But she’s not content ruling in a place that’s more her true home than Westeros ever was, or to steward a people that willingly confer legitimacy on her because of her commitment to liberation. It is this continued pursuit of power out of a sense of entitlement beyond her newfound dominion over the Bay of Dragons that condemns Daenerys’ arc to fiery rage instead of the benevolent restoration she envisions.

In stark contrast to this is her brief romantic counterpart, Jon Snow, who receives power not through continued pursuit but by it being conferred upon him by others. Unlike Daenerys, Jon does not intrinsically desire positions of power and the power he does enjoy has not been actively accumulated by his actions. He is thrust into those positions by those around him who witness his commitment to coalition building and resilient ability to slog out tough fights for the greater good. Jon reluctantly embraces power out of a sense of responsibility for stewardship of those that entrust leadership to him — the same stewardship Daenerys abandons when called upon to commit to it long-term. Jon’s journey will end differently than Daenerys’ because his understanding of power is as a call to service, a duty that must be fulfilled. He isn’t consumed by titles, doesn’t choose to pursue power he has little true connection to, and remains committed to investing people. It allows him to forsake entitlement when it is revealed he has it and sets him apart from those who desire power.

Ultimately, this is what Daenerys’ arc warns against — the desire for power beyond what you have reason to hold and the consequences of actively pursuing it instead of holding it out of necessity. Game of Thrones shows the viewer that power for its own sake will inevitably lead to ruin, causing even the most well-intentioned individuals to morph into something unrecognizable to their earlier selves.

Recovering political professional hiding in Higher Education. I write about electoral trends, institutional confidence, and your average existential crisis.

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